Re: “We just don’t know enough about ecology to reliably prevent wild animal suffering without causing more damage in the process”

Say there’s a horrible moral disaster going on at the moment that you (1) know about, (2) know something could at least plausibly be done about, (3) know we don’t currently have enough information to safely do much about, but (4) know how to collect at least some relevant and potentially useful information about. This is not a very difficult problem: if you know what kind of information could be helpful to alleviate the issue, the first step in alleviating the issue is in fact collecting more information, not just deciding whether or not you should help based only on your existing knowledge.

A simple miniature version of the same situation is knowing someone vulnerable is lost in the freezing cold forest area nearby, knowing you could (with your better navigation equipment and warm clothing) probably track and save them if you were there, knowing you wouldn’t be able to find your way to the forest from where you’re currently standing, but also knowing you have a smartphone you could probably use to find your way there. Ignoring other things, obviously you should consult the smartphone or otherwise seek the necessary information to help out the person in trouble: you may not immediately know the best map application or where your winter boots currently are located, but there are many ways to increase your relevant knowledge base here, and thinking about it for a while instead of dismissing the issue sure would help. If we expand the analogue to include the rest of civilization as well, there’s also the helpful folks with dogs and helicopters: maybe you could encourage them to do the job in case you think it’s not where your comparative advantage lies. What you probably wouldn’t do is shrug and accept that someone will definitely die out there just because there are multiple steps and some uncertainty in the process, and you don’t immediately know how to do the object-level helpful things.

When talking about wild animal suffering, all but the most radical utilitarians and altruists are understandably super cautious about doing anything substantial. Some people simply have strong intuitions against meddling with the natural order (no, not the natural order that directly hurts human societies, just the more natural natural order, the nature, you know) which I think is a weak position for reasons I won’t go into right now because other people have written about it in length before. Some people don’t think things are so bad for wild animals anyway, probably because they feel suffering and satisfaction are somehow hedonistically commensurable and animal lives have some good moments as well (whereas I reject this view of pain an pleasure as the opposite, positive and negative aspects of the same stuff – they can be indirectly compared using preferences for different tradeoffs, sure, but experience-wise they’re not simply opposites in valence, but fundamentally different (and the bad is more relevant than the good)).

But the majority of people I interact with seem to basically accept that the lives of wild animals are often really bad, nature isn’t inherently sacred to the extent that we couldn’t help sentient beings out there – it’s just that we don’t have enough information, so our hands are basically tied. Some of these people accept that there might be a point in the distant future where we could maybe do something about the issue, while some people don’t really think about this possibility either, because the task sounds so thoroughly daunting. Both responses ignore the possibility of actually immediately working to increase our understanding of ecosystems so as to build sufficiently informed, actionable plans to alleviate ecological suffering, which is exactly what we should urgently be doing, instead of just accepting our temporary helplessness.


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